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Evictions Crisis: How Did Richmond Get out of Control?

Photo depicts an image of a court docket of a single courtroom showing more than 150 eviction lawsuits listed.
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VPM News Focal Point
Evictions are becoming so prevalent in Richmond that multiple judges are each hearing dozens of lawsuits a day.

Pandemic relief measures coupled with federal grant programs stemmed the tide of evictions for a time. But now that most of those programs have ended, the city’s eviction rate is once again becoming a concern. 

TRANSCRIPT FROM VIDEO

BILLY SHIELDS: This is retired handyman Terry Scott. At 66, he just spent three months in the hospital for heart bypass surgery. And that is when the eviction notices started coming in.

TERRY SCOTT: Stressing me out. It's totally stressing me out, you know what I mean? Stressing me the out, that's what I mean, yeah. And that, I mean, what I could do, 'cause I, you know, I'm in there.

BILLY SHIELDS: Scott was lucky that community healthcare worker Shantea Swinson was assigned to help him recover from the surgery. She also volunteered to advocate on his behalf in the eviction.

SHANTEA SWINSON: And I realized that they were suing him for non-payment of rent for two months. When I started looking through his paperwork, I realized he had already overpaid.

BILLY SHIELDS: And this is the third time Scott's been to court this year, all for the same reason, to fend off eviction. He's one of the lucky ones. He can pay his rent. Thousands of Richmonders who can't are being kicked to the curb.

OMARI AL-QADAFFI: Right now, it does not seem like there is any effort in Richmond to address those who are at a lowest income. And I mean those that are at zero to 30% of the area median income. It does not seem like there's any effort specifically.

BILLY SHIELDS: In 2018, the city of Richmond made national headlines for having the second highest eviction rate of major American cities. Pandemic measures lowered that rate, but only for a bit.

MARTIN WEGBREIT: Now it's probably, it's creeping upward. It's, you know, probably 12, 13, 14,000 per year, if you annualize it.

BILLY SHIELDS: Attorney Martin Wegbreit says far too many Richmonders are paying more than they can afford for housing, many spending more than half their income just to keep a roof over their head.

MARTIN WEGBREIT: If you're paying more than half of your income for rent, an eviction lawsuit is not just a possibility. It is an inevitability.

BILLY SHIELDS: Recently we were in a Richmond courtroom, where a single judge heard more than 150 eviction proceedings in one day, some over outstanding amounts under $400. Wegbreit points to a few problems. One is how inexpensive it is for a landlord to file an eviction lawsuit. In Virginia, it's around $60. In North Carolina, that fee is around $150. And in Alabama, it's over 250. Wegbreit also notes that legally, a landlord can file an eviction lawsuit if rent is more than 11 days late. He recommends the state adopt a timeframe of at least 14 days, which all but guarantees a typical employee will get a paycheck before being evicted. Now that pandemic rent forgiveness is over, the situation is deteriorating.

OMARI AL-QADAFFI: But after the pandemic protections ended, I never had to tell so many people that, "We can't help you."

BILLY SHIELDS: Advocates can't help because of the severe housing shortage across the state, particularly in Richmond.

KELLY KING HORNE: Deodorant, snacks, wipes, and-

BILLY SHIELDS: Kelly King Horne is the executive director of Homeward. It's a regional support agency that aims to reduce homelessness in the greater Richmond area.

KELLY KING HORNE: That the housing market is complex, but generally, we are not building and developing enough housing for all parts of our community.

BILLY SHIELDS: Virginia legislators enacted meaningful eviction reforms in 2019, 2020, and 2021, but advocates say they don't go far enough. Meanwhile, back in court, with help from his hospital caregiver, Terry Scott was able to convince the judge to dismiss his eviction case. He is angry at his landlords.

TERRY SCOTT: It's like it's a game, you know what I mean? It's like a game they play. They don't care. They go home and sleep in their beds, and do what they want when they get up in the morning, and try somebody else.

SHANTEA SWINSON: If Mr. Scott had not come to court, they would have automatically assumed he owed, and they would've went a judgment for him. This property hasn't shown up three times, so who's going to hold them accountable for what they've done?

BILLY SHIELDS: Angered he had to appear in court at all, Scott is hoping this is the last time he has to take these steps to avoid eviction.

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Billy Shields is a multimedia journalist with VPM News Focal Point.
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